Conceiving Characters

Salman Rushdie

Lesson time 13:11 min

Salman discusses the “write what you know” dictum in relation to character and encourages you to embrace characters whose realities differ from your own.

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Topics include: Your Character’s Destiny Is Not Who They Are · Start From a Version of Yourself · Learn to Engage With Realities That Are Not Yours · Writing Unlikable Characters · Minor Characters: Don’t Just Sketch Them In


[MUSIC PLAYING] SALMAN RUSHDIE: Speaking for myself, sometimes when I'm writing something, I'm really much more enjoying writing the bad characters than the good characters. Because there's a kind of freedom in it. Let yourself be bad on the page. The heart of the novel, traditionally, was-- you could say it's a line from thousands of years ago from Heraclitus, where he says, essentially, the character is destiny. You know, a person's character is their fate. The kind of personality you have determines the kind of life you will have. And the novel as a form has always followed that. The character is like this. Therefore, their future-- their fate is of this kind. And I remember when Charles Schulz, who draws-- drew the Peanuts comic strip, talked about giving up, stopping doing it, before he-- I mean, some time before he died-- a lot of people wrote in asking him that, before he stopped drawing it, there was just one thing could he please allow it to happen. And that was could just once Charlie Brown kick the football. And he never did it. Because he knew that if Charlie Brown once kicked the football, he would in some ways stop being Charlie Brown. And if Lucy just once didn't whip the football away at the last minute, then her Lucyness would be compromised. Their character was their destiny. It was his character to always fail to kick the football. It was her character to always whip it away. But now we live in a world in which character is often not destiny. When I was writing "Midnight's Children," I had this sentence, which was originally very near the beginning, which was, "most of what matters in our lives takes place in our absence." And then, in the end, I thought, that's too Tolstoyan in a way to have as a beginning. And I buried it inside the book. But what I meant by that is that our daily lives are affected by decisions taken and things happening in rooms we don't even know the existence of, between conversations between people whose names we will never know, who decide things about the economy, about war and peace, about all sorts of things that directly impact our lives. And that seems to me to be a very modern concern, the fact that our lives can be changed by things we can't affect. And to put it at its most tragic, when those planes flew into those towers, and those thousands of people passed away, it wasn't anything to do with their character. Their character was not their destiny. And yet, there's a colossal event that we have to come to grips with. And we have to try and work out new strategies to encompass this world in which sometimes our character is not our fate. With character, sometimes you'll find that you know the character very well immediately. And if so, then that's a great good fortune. Sometimes writers, in order to have that feeling, will base the central character on a variation of themselves. It gives you a feeling of confidence to be somewhere close to yourself, you know. And y...

About the Instructor

To the delight of readers across the globe, Salman Rushdie’s genre-defying novels have brought surreal and magical realms to life for decades. Now the Booker Prize–winning author teaches you the art and craft of storytelling. Learn how to draw from your own experiences to build vivid worlds, authentic characters, and complex plots. There are extraordinary stories that only you can write—start sharing them.

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Salman Rushdie

Booker Prize winner Salman Rushdie teaches you his techniques for crafting believable characters, vivid worlds, and spellbinding stories.

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